25 Books that Changed My Life
What book has impacted you the most?
Mull that question over for a moment or two.
Pretty tough, huh?
Try to choose a single book, among the many thousands of titles out there, which changed the direction of your life in some way. Perhaps the book you’re considering made you think about yourself differently. Maybe it changed the way you see the world, or took you to a different time and place.
Then again, choosing a favorite book is probably an impossible task. Like asking a parent to pick out their favorite child. Unconscionable, even. Indeed, all books are unique. Books not only mean different things to different people, they’re also open to different interpretations at various points in our lives. A book read at age 20 might not seem like the same book at age 40 — since that book is likely to have a completely different impact. But the book hasn’t changed. We change.
A friend named Sabyl Cohen Landrum asked this very question recently on her Facebook page (CLICK HERE). She posted a list of the ten (later 20) books that touched her life the most. That revelation triggered some additional responses, and alternative book lists. Since I knew those who responded, I noticed that the favored books were clear reflections of who they were. In short, the chosen books had a decipherable impact in shaping not only their thinking, but their identities as well.
After reviewing the lists of others, I went to my bookshelf and began looking over the books I thought were most meaningful to me. Since it’s pointless to rank them by subject or relevance, instead I’ll list them in the order they were read, starting when I was in school, up to the present day. I’d be remiss were I not to mention this list is woefully incomplete, since I plan on reading many more books in the future.
These 25 books are listed by title, author, and date of publication, along with a short description and why they were/are important to me:
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906)
One of the earliest political novels I can remember reading, as a school assignment. However, years later I went back and re-read it again. I suspect this book gave me an early appreciation for working-class struggles and a solidarity with populism.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
Probably the greatest adventure book ever written. Breathtaking narrative that stands the test of time. I first read it for English class, then revisited it again many years later following the viewing of a PBS special. I hope to read it again someday.
All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (1974)
One of the first adult books I voluntarily read on my own, which was released as a national best-seller when I was 12-years-old. This intense real-life political drama at the highest levels of power undoubtedly triggered my lifelong interest in government and sparked a desire to live in work in Washington, D.C.
1984 by George Orwell (1949)
Some books need no description, nor any explanation as to why they’re relevant to our lives. This is one of them. I suspect it may be one of yours, too.
Animal Liberation by Peter Singer (1975)
The essential philosophy behind the animal rights movement is outlined in this powerful groundbreaking work. I’ve always been sympathetic of the plight of animals, and this book reinforced those attitudes which laid the foundation for compassion.
Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy (1979)
Watergate conspirator and former Nixon Administration hatchet man Liddy espouses his own personal philosophy in this candid autobiography released right after he served four years in prison. I saw him speak during his book tour. Interesting times. Interesting man. Interesting ideas. I’m not a believer in “the ends justify the means.” But Liddy lays out what many conservatives truly believe(d), and that’s certainly worthy of our attention. This book is a bit dated now, but was clearly something millions could identify with since the Reagan Revolution was ushered in only a few years later.
Going to Extremes by Joe McGinniss (1980)
True story of a man determined to live out in the Alaska wilderness for an entire year. Great human adventure with plentiful insights about our relationship with nature and the constant inner struggle within ourselves when facing the most demanding challenges.
Warday by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka (1984)
The best post-World War III narrative I’ve read, which not only details what daily life would be like for the survivors of a nuclear holocaust, but also addresses the social, economic, philosophical, and even racial changes that a new society would face. I rarely read novels, but this book reads more like non-fiction. It’s a warning of what really could happen in our future. Written back during the closing years of the Cold War, but still just as relevant today.
Memoirs by Tennessee Williams (1975)
Autobiography of one of my favorite writers laced with brutal honesty. All of the great playwright’s flaws and fears and exposed openly in this book, which took great courage to write, and was even somewhat scandalous when released in the mid-1970s. Not a great book, but certainly a brave one by an extraordinary writer.
Love by Leo Buscaglia (1972)
“Dr. Love” was a popular teacher and lecturer during the 1970s and 1980s who touched millions of lives with his writings and ideas, including mine. READ MORE OF MY WRITINGS ON BUSCAGLIA’S LIFE HERE
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
Futuristic science-fiction classic way ahead of its time foreshadows the coming age of television (and the Internet) when books and ideas become largely forgotten (even banned) in the world of universal conformity, false imagery, and short attention spans. Sound familiar?
And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (1987)
The groundbreaking story of the worldwide AIDS epidemic. Dealt honestly with a sensitive subject and with dignity, giving people who were not necessarily connected to the gay lifestyle a greater appreciation and empathy for the terrible devastation caused by the disease.
Seriously, You’re Joking: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard Feynman (1985)
Who would have figured that a brilliant physicist could also be such a treasured writer and humorist? Feynman, who wrote a number of similar books poking fun at conventional thought, is at his very best here in a book filled with personal stories about his experiences in science, academia, and involvement in public policy. Teaches us all that it’s okay to laugh at ourselves and have fun while in pursuit of knowledge.
Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player by Anthony Holden (1992)
This book, more than any other, nudged me in the direction of writing more about poker and gambling, rather than politics and current events. English wordsmith Holden showed the rest of us how it’s done in his first foray about his personal experiences at the poker table some twenty years ago, and this seminal work way prior to the poker boom remains unequaled to this day. READ HOLDEN’S “FIRING SQUAD” CONTRIBUTION HERE
The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro (1975)
One of the best books I’ve ever read, bar none. A Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece which not only tells the story of New York City’s rise (Caro insists “fall”) during the 20th Century, but the mind-boggling transformation that policy decisions have on the millions of people who must live with the consequences of what happens within the corridors of power. It’s the biography of Robert Moses, one of our nation’s most powerful non-elected officials in history, but in reality more of a modern day version of Machiavelli. Utterly Shakespearean in scope and significance. The chapter titled One Mile was a life-altering experience which made me see cities, people, and so-called “progress” differently.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson (The Path to Power) by Robert A. Caro (1982)
After writing The Power Broker, author Robert A. Caro has dedicated more than 30 years of his life to the study of one man, Lyndon B. Johnson. When you read any of his four volumes completed to date, you’ll understand why. His first volume, The Path to Power reveals what it was really like growing up in rural America before the modern age and how those daily hardships not only shaped the men and women who endured those times, but how they eventually came to build and shape the country we know today. This is the quintessential story of America told through one man — flawed, ambitious, brave, awkward, alienated, and potentially transformational.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (2000)
Not only a “how to” guide for writers and those aspiring to use the written word, this semi-biography is also the confessional of one of our greatest popular writers. The story behind King’s creative genius is just as compelling as his best-selling books, as this narrative clearly shows.
Infinite Loop by Michael S. Malone (1999)
Largely unknown book on the story of Apple and the high-tech industry. Incredibly detailed account of the early days of what would eventually change all of our lives. This was my first real exposure to a subject I (still) know relatively little about. Steve Jobs’ recent death has fueled a flood of similar books and projects. But this earlier narrative was among the very first and best insights into how we got to where we are now.
Image and Reality of the Palestinian Conflict by Normal G. Finkelstein (1995)
A life-changing book that not only caused me look at the Middle East conflict differently, but sparked larger questions about everything we’ve ever been taught about the rest of the world. I’ve always been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but this book makes it clear the U.S. needs to completely rethink and revamp its foreign policy just about everywhere.
The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories by William Bennett (1993)
This book was given to me as a present by a relative. It sat unopened on my bookshelf for two years. Then one day, I started reading. Wonderful collection of inspiring tales about the things we should all aspire to. Inspirational.
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (2005)
Blistering indictment of the Chicago School of Economics and the twisted philosophies of Milton Friedman and his proteges who have consistently destabilized governments, wrecked economies, and ruined million of lives. Comprehensive overview of what unbridled free-market capitalism really does to many societies, especially when administered by those with exploitative self-interests.
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (2007)
I was already firmly grounded in the anti-theist camp by the time I first read Hitchen’s controversial treatise roasting the fairy tales of the faithful like marshmallows on an open campfire. But this book not only gave me an arsenal of new ammunition that I’d never contemplated before, but also the self-confidence that we secular humanists are not as few and far between as we seem. Indeed, millions are in pursuit of reason and enlightenment, without the trappings of religion and superstition. This book stands as one of the torches that led the way. Personal Note: I could just as easily have chosen The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, which is equally as brilliant and meaningful.
Memoirs of a Minor Public Official by Des Wilson (2010)
Little-known autobiography of senior poker writer and former head of the U.K.’s Liberal Party — Des Wilson. Admittedly, Des is a close friend, so I was able to identify with his book more than most. However, several chapters of this book blew me away. I had to stop reading at times and wipe away tears. It’s a wonderfully insightful look at the world and humanity through the experiences and reflections of a very gifted and underrated writer.
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (2011)
This is Hitchens’ walk to the gallows with his head held high. Intensely personal, revealing, and poignant. Read my book review HERE
Free Will by Sam Harris (2012)
This is the latest book I’ve read which is causing me to re-think things over again (I’d have it no other way). Harris scribes a concise yet powerful argument that the choices we make aren’t really our own, but rather the consequences of trillions of subparticles and forces in perpetual motion. Monumentally important question relating to everything we know about our own existence is addressed by one of the greatest thinkers of our time.
That’s it. I probably missed a few. But there’s my final answer.
So, what are some of the most meaningful books you’re read?
Note to self: Be sure and write an article “the most disappointing books I’ve ever read” in an upcoming post.